Provincial Update: Let’s make schools safe and stop further closures

Submitted by Joel Harden, MPP for Ottawa Centre

On Jan. 11, the Ford government announced that schools would reopen the following Monday, Jan. 17. 

Amidst the relief, there is also anxiety. That’s because this premier and his minister of education have consistently failed to take the steps that are necessary to keep schools safe and open for in-person learning. 

Even before the most recent round of school closures was announced, Ontario led the country in terms of the number of cancelled in-person learning days. Indeed, Ontario schools have been closed for more days than anywhere else in North America and most of Europe. The negative impact of these closures on the mental health and well-being of children is significant. This is a major failure on the part of the government, who—time and again—have failed to follow the advice of medical experts, education staff and parents. 

For well over a year, we’ve been urging this government to give schools the resources they need to implement smaller class sizes, upgrade ventilation, and equip staff with the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to stay safe. Time and again, these appeals have fallen on deaf ears. 

To keep kids in class and avoid sending them home once again, the government needs to start listening. It’s time for them to make the necessary investments, including smaller class sizes, free rapid tests for all students, teachers and education workers, in-school vaccine clinics with a major outreach campaign, upgraded ventilation and free N95 masks for all teachers and education workers. 

While we are finally starting to see some progress on several of these demands after significant public pressure, this is undermined by the government’s changes to COVID-19 reporting in our schools. Parents and staff were shocked to learn that schools will only be reporting outbreaks when 30 per cent of staff and students test positive. As Marit Stiles, our official opposition critic for education, put it so well, “it shouldn’t be easier to find out about a lice outbreak [in your child’s school] than a COVID outbreak.” 

Why has this government consistently failed to invest adequately in making schools safer? It stems from their obsession with saving money at all costs, even in the middle of a global pandemic. Premier Ford once said he would “spare no expense” in the fight against COVID-19. But, his actions speak much louder than his words. 

According to the Financial Accountability Officer, the Ford government spent a staggering $4.3 billion less than budgeted in the first half of the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Of this amount, $600 million was underspent on public health, and $700 million was underspent on education. This is money that could have been used to shore up our healthcare system, support workers and small businesses affected by closures and give our kids safer, smaller class sizes. 

Safe, in-person learning can’t be done on the cheap. If this government truly believes that schools should be the first to open and the last to close, they must heed our advice and make the investments that are required to keep our kids in the classroom.

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